Nonwestern medicine, Chiapas style

mike salovesh (T20MXS1@NIU.BITNET)
Sat, 4 Jun 1994 16:45:00 CDT

Barbara Ruth Campbell asks the list for information on non-western
medicine, healing, treatment of disease, and worldview regarding the
causes of disease and accidents.

I've got lots of data, but little formally written up, from the
mixed Indian/Ladino town of Venustiano Carranza, Chiapas, Mexico.
(Anthropological habit calls the Indian community within the town by
the town's former name, San Bartolome de los Llanos.) But to illus-
trate what an intricate and complicated business this can be, let me
recount an anecdote from early in my first field trip (1958):

I heard that Bal U. had fallen on the trail coming home from the
milpa, badly gashing his leg. Since I had already interviewed his
wife Angela several times, and had learned a lot from her, I went
immediately to their house so I might witness a possible curing

When I got there, Angela was performing a complex curing ceremony.
She was washing out the wound with boiled water, using cloths that
had been boiled in a pressure cooker. (Over a typical Maya three-
stone cookfire, I might add.) Angela then dusted the wound with
sulfa powder from a freshly and carefully opened pack. She finished
the curing ceremony by covering the wound with sterile dressings.
Next morning, Bal went to see the town's resident MD at his clinic.

I was devastated. I concluded that these folks were as sophisticated
in terms of western medicine as they could get, and let the whole
matter drop.

Which was, of course, a stupid mistake on my part. My only excuse is
my inexperience at the time. Two years later, I had a long talk with
Angela about the incident, and she recounted for me just who the
curandera was that they sought out the following week. She described
the curandera's divination and curing session, and her recommendation
for further treatment of the spiritual imbalance that made Bal vul-
nerable to such an accident. Angela also told me she wondered at the
time why I hadn't asked her about which curandera they would seek to
treat the causes of the accident.

By this time, the Ladino doctor was my compadre, and I asked him
about his views of similar incidents. He told me that there were
some good curanderas, and some bad ones; it was his practice to work
with the good ones. By which he meant that he sought their help in
getting effective western medical help to the manifest conditions,
and he did not/does not interfere with his patients' beliefs about
latent (usually spiritual) underlying causes. He finds no problem in
calling some curanderas his colleagues, even saying that with a
straight face when he's talking about what he sees as the good ones.
(It's clear he's joking if he says "colleague" about a bad curer, and
his definition of a bad curer is one who interferes with his treat-
ments in the mainline western medical tradition. Oddly enough, his
evaluations of the quality of particular curers are pretty close to
their reputations among Indians.)

All of which is to say that, as usual, people are pretty complicated
animals. Which is what makes fieldwork so damned interesting!

mike salovesh anthro dept northern illinois univ
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